Europe's new dark age?

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 June 2000




Rankin, A. (2000), "Europe's new dark age?", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Europe's new dark age?

Aidan RankinAidan Rankin is Research Fellow in Politics at the London School of Economics, London

Keywords Europe, Ethics

A Response to The Conscience of Europe, ed. John Coleman (Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing, 1999).

In Belgium, a Socialist Cabinet Minister, Madame Laurette Onkelinx, expresses her desire to ban the Vlaams Blok, a far-right party which seeks independence for Flanders, in terms which invoke the Council of Europe's founding principles. "Parties which manifest hostility to human rights" she intones, "deserve to be suppressed". Madame Onkelinx's candour is refreshing. Clearly, she possesses the Francophone genius for carrying an idea to its logical conclusion, and then expressing it in crisp, uncompromising terms. Out goes Voltaire's noble commitment to go to the barricades in defence of another man's right to express unpalatable opinions. In comes a debased version of Rousseau's General Will. The hard-won and previously sacred right to freedom of speech is sacrificed to the altar of collectivist thought control, the prerogative of socialism in most of its theory and almost all of its practice. Yet it is not socialism itself, or the alleged interests of "the workers" that Madame Onkelinx invokes. It is the concepts underlying the European Convention on Human Rights, the Council of Europe's "crown jewel".

Meanwhile, across the Channel, a wealthy British homosexual couple tells everyone who is prepared to listen that, despite the prejudices of human anatomy, they have a "human right to be parents". This "right" leads them, quite literally, to rent a womb. Test tube twins, conceived from the men's mixed sperm and a donated egg, are implanted in an American surrogate, who is amply rewarded for her pains. This transaction, which offers us a post-modern definition of bonded labour, ends with the children being delivered to "joint fathers". They will never know their mother's identity because even their fathers do not know it. In these confused millennial times, natural rights encompass unnatural rights, too. "Rights" have become a catch-all term, a rationale for self-indulgence, a plea for entitlement for material gain, a justification for censoring unfashionable ideas, or worst of all, a euphemistic cover for issues that trouble the conscience. Supporters of abortion on demand, for instance, no longer talk of abortion on demand, but of "reproductive rights", a sanctimonious moral evasion. Something is going wrong with rights. And yet, in this new volume of essays, Dr George Carey, the politically correct Archbishop of Canterbury, rattles his Euro-tambourine as he proclaims:

The Council of Europe gave birth to the European Convention on Human Rights and we Europeans are rightly proud of that Convention and associated machinery for its implementation. It is not that European human rights are superior to or different from anyone else's human rights! It is not that we seek to deny or frustrate everyone else's rights: indeed we offer our Convention as a possible model for the wider world.

Are we really "rightly proud" of the Convention 50 years on? Or do we instead regard it as another failed attempt to reduce the human predicament to a few neat formulae? And if our "human rights" are neither "superior to" or "different" from those of anyone else, why then should the Convention be a "model" for the rest of mankind? Dr Carey's incantations are the nadir of this book of thoughtful, wide-ranging essays to mark the Council of Europe's half-century. When John Coleman, the editor, asked me to "respond" to the book, I balked at the task. For I have not previously been the Council of Europe's greatest admirer. When I look at the circle of stars, the Council's emblem - symbolic also of the European Union, its illegitimate child - I think of the symbol of concussion in the newspaper cartoons. Good cartoons confront human foibles with the amused bewilderment that all men experience. The Council of Europe has, by contrast, seemed to me to be a humourless, self-important network of institutions, founded by politicians who, with Churchill's honourable exception, had more in common with each other than with their electorates. Born in the mid-1960s, after the post-War idealism had turned sour, I have witnessed with both rage and amusement the foolish destructive judgements of the Human Rights Court, seeing them as part of a wider trend towards nihilism. John's book has dispelled only some of these impressions. It has reminded me, however, of the largeness of spirit, generosity and concern for human well being that pervaded the early Council and still persists to offer us hope for a better Europe. It persists, almost infuriatingly, amid the idiocies, making the Council impossible to dismiss and yet not worthy of respect.

As I confront the contrast between the Council's lofty goal of a European civil society and the shabby reality of pan-European institutions, I feel sorrow rather than anger. For I see the failure of the Council to give Europe a conscience, let alone an identity or a soul, as a tragedy. Unlike the demise of fascism and communism, the twentieth century's evil ideologies, the Council's moral failure is a defeat for virtue. This tragedy reflects the corruption of the liberal ideal, the decline of a humane vision of man and society that has informed the best of European thought and made it "different from" others. The debasement of liberalism takes many forms. Chief amongst these are the trivialising of human rights until they become a legal adjunct to the "permissive society", the decline of the public service ideal in favour of vulgar money-grubbing, and the cult of the autonomous individual, shorn of social responsibilities and thereby diminished. At a theoretical level, we have witnessed the grafting on to liberal thought of totalitarian concepts, often dubbed "political correctness" that have made intellectual discourse pallid and apologetic, rather than fearless as it once was. The thoughtful, cultured men who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights failed to predict that these rights would become an instrument of social engineering and the imposition of bien pensant prejudices. But as early as 1932, when his Brave New World was published, Aldous Huxley had realised that the modern thought-control regime need not be a crude dictatorship. Far more effective is a system that uses the language of freedom and creates the illusion of fulfilment:

There is of course no reason why the new totalitarianism should resemble the old. Government by firing squads ... is not merely inhumane. It is demonstrably inefficient, and in an age of advanced technology, inefficiency is a sin against the Holy Ghost. A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude[1].

The rights-based culture of post-War Europe, promoted by politicians, corporations and lobbyists, looks unkindly on tradition, settled values and old-fashioned loyalties. In the overthrow of outmoded prejudices and the substitution of new ones, a nomenklatura of single-issue activists use the Council of Europe's ideals as intellectual underpinning and legal sanction. Thus perishes the concept of the individual who is free, but whose freedom is given substance by his connections to a wider society, and by his obligations to family and friends. In its place, there arises the notion of the individual whose rights derive only from his absorption in a group - a group based on ethnic origins rather than citizenship, sex and sexual orientation rather than character, interests and circumstances. The "rights" of such artificially constituted "identity groups" are asserted on their behalf by unelected, unaccountable lobbyists. To such campaigners, it is inconceivable that a woman could place the fate of her redundant husband, or her unemployed sons, before the issue of "women's employment rights". Equally, it is impossible that a homosexual could oppose the public promotion of homosexuality and dislike the "gay rights" movement, or that an African could be concerned as much with crime and transport as racial prejudice. In other words, the doctrine of group rights, after the fashion of that old Marxist fallacy "the workers have no country", fails to allow for differences between individuals in allegiances and priorities, or even the hobbies and interests which inspire real people to form groups that matter to them. So pervasive is the lobbyist approach to rights in European - and American - political discourse that our populations are increasingly Balkanised by struggles for "group rights". The idea of choice is no longer a moral concept. It is reserved instead for the selection of commodities, or for increasingly commodified sexual relationships. Freedom to shop replaces freedom to think, whilst as in Brave New World, specious sexual freedoms replace the intellectual rigour and sense of personal responsibility that freedom once implied. As Huxley also predicts:

The most important Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast, government sponsored inquiries into what the politicians call the "problem of happiness" - in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude[2].

Unlike Coleman himself, few contributors to this volume are prepared to question the idea of rights-based culture as the basis for a European identity, to recognise the authoritarian implications of group rights, or to accept that the Council of Europe might have taken the wrong path. Cosmo Russell, for example, describes the Human Rights Convention and accompanying legal paraphernalia as "the distinguishing mark of the Council of Europe". Russell, who was present with Churchill at the Council's initiation, recalls a speech from the President of the Assembly, Paul Henri Spaak, in which he told his colleagues that the first "European Parliament" had been created. Apparently, he adapted the words of Danton, the French revolutionary, substituting L'Europe for La France. "De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et l'Europe est sauve". Russell himself quotes Edmund Burke as proclaiming 'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive' on the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Yet Burke is better known for his opposition to abstract rights, and his wise preference for the accumulated historical wisdom of a nation or people. He rejected the idea of a formalised social contract, as promoted by the continental philosophes, regarding the only true contract as the natural continuity between generations: those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born. It is not Burke, therefore, who is best remembered for praising the blissful dawn, but the Romantic William Wordsworth:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,But to be young was very heaven.-Oh! TimesIn which the meagre, stale, forbidding waysOf customs, law, and statute, took at onceThe attraction of a country in romance!When reason seemed the most to assert her rights,When most intent on making of herselfA prime enchantress - to assist the work,Which then was going forward in her name![3]

Wordsworth's poem, "French Revolution", is subtly subtitled "As It Appeared To Enthusiasts At Its Commencement". Wordsworth's generation of intelligent and sensitive Englishmen learned quickly that revolutions were not about romance, but about envy and terror, in which the "custom, law and statute" that allow the poet freedom are cruelly overturned. The French Revolution, nonetheless, began the modern era of codified, abstract rights in Europe. There is a clear line of political evolution from the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" in 1791 to the European Convention on Human Rights. The assumption behind both is that enlightened administrators can change the way people think and feel, that traditions and modes of thought that seem awkward or contrary to "progress" can be chopped, trimmed and moulded into shape like occupants of the Procrustean bed. Freedom, according to this view of the world, is introduced by legislation, rather than existing because of the absence of legislation. Custom diminishes freedom. Prejudice is always detrimental to freedom, and should be "suppressed" by the state, which is not only freedom's protector, but its source. This is why, quite logically, Madame Onkelinx invokes "human rights" to justify the banning of a party which she dislikes, and which, she believes, retards human progress. The original Declaration had a chequered history, for instead of ushering in a "dawn" of liberty, it coincided with a period of terror in which Danton, amongst others, was consumed. Within ten years, the Revolution had yielded to Napoleonic rule, and with it the Code Napoleon, which tightened up the earlier Declaration and gave it a universal application. The tension within the European "project" is between the Emperor's political heirs and those who believe with George Bull, a Renaissance scholar and fellow contributor, that "Europe can create greater unity without losing its remarkable, iridescent diversity".

For the decentralists, "Europe" means city-states and self-governing nations, building upon their own laws and customs, developing their own art, their own architecture, their own literature and their own inventions - all of which are also part of a wider civilisation. The centralists believe that civilisation can be imposed from above by grand design, that the inevitable march of history is towards something larger and better, based on pure reason and the uniformity that stems from it. Centralists have been ascendant in the formation of the European Union (and its predecessor, the "Common Market"). Based on economics and political power, the EU overshadows the Council in public consciousness, to the extent that few continental Europeans - and still fewer Britons - differentiate. It seems, at times, as if the differences are deliberately obscured. Some of Coleman's contributors challenge this confusion head-on. They draw a radical distinction between the Council, with its lofty humanitarianism, and the European Union, with its belief in economic growth at all costs. As Robin Guthrie, head of social and economic affairs at the Council from 1992-98, opines:

The key problem is that the power and the principles in Europe have become separated. The principles lie in Strasbourg, with the Council of Europe. They are not economic: the costs of incorporating those principles into national structures are not primarily financial. In the Council of Europe in Strasbourg virtually all the states of Europe meet on an equal footing; a unity has been established which at last covers the whole continent, in all its diversity of languages, culture and economic variation. But the power lies in Brussels.

The EU is, indeed, the ultimate in neo-Bonapartist initiatives. Napoleon himself expressed the desire for Europe to have a common currency, because it would "make trade much easier". Neither Napoleon's henchmen, nor today's Euro-enthusiasts, have much time for local laws, customs, even weights and measures. Both have relied upon the support of "progressive" elites, who interpret the will of their fellow-countrymen. Both underestimate the power of human diversity, the preference for familiar practice over grand design. The ecology movement is represented in this volume by Diana Schumacher. She demonstrates that movement's greatest strength: an awareness of the importance of diversity, and of the shallowness of modern ideas of "progress". Now, it is time for cultural and political diversity to reassert themselves, too. Peter Smithers, Secretary General of the Council from 1964-69, reminds us that "big is no longer beautiful", that empires have crumbled and so have federations such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Nigerian unity is precarious also, as Smithers rightly mentions, and as Dele Oguntimoju explains in a fascinating essay which deserves a review unto itself. Meanwhile, the Indian subcontinent is riven with separatist movements, and even in the USA, ideas of regionalism and "States Rights" are coming back. The EU centralisers, Smithers argues, might be behind the times:

The idea that against the current of events one can set up a successful state from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic to the Urals and beyond betrays the same simplistic thinking which inspired so many constitutions in Latin America, most of which failed because they did not correspond with reality.

Wise words, these, but surely as relevant to the Council of Europe as to the European Union. For Latin America exemplifies better than anywhere else, perhaps, the problems of written constitutions, when they bear no relationship to how people think or behave. Argentina's 1853 constitution was imposed by a "liberal oligarchy" and seen as a beacon of liberalism. But the only parts of it to be applied were those providing for "emergency powers" which placed the rights of man on hold. Colombia today has a framework of laws that would make British civil liberties campaigners proud, but this does not stop "social cleansing" by death squads. The problem with the Council of Europe is that it is too abstract in its principles and that it fails to test its ideas against others. Just as the European Union makes economic growth the only measure of success, the Council of Europe has come to equate social advancement with uncomplicated personal freedom - and a uniform idea of personal freedom, applying across national boundaries and overriding social conventions. The Council's Web site, for example, favours the feminist agenda over the stable family structures essential to a genuinely free society. The European Court decides the recruitment policies of national armies, "rules" on how children should be disciplined by parents or schools and often sides blatantly with criminals against the interests of their victims, or with terrorists against ordered communities. This narrow view of "progress" towards "freedom" is as unsatisfactory, and as outdated, as the European Union's view of "progress" towards growth. It is based on an arrogant humanism that sees history as a straight line, moving inexorably forward. Asian philosophy, by contrast, recognises in human history, cyclical patterns. In Hinduism, each cycle ends with a dark age:

In the Yuga, the last, shortest and nastiest age in each world-cycle, evil proliferated [within] a world given over to luxury and vice. Women forgot their modesty, ... and the lives of men became ever more brutish and short. When this extreme of degeneration had been reached a fearful drought afflicted the earth and men died in their thousands[4].

This myth demonstrates effectively the connection between ecological imbalance and the breakdown of social order. In its confusion of liberty and licence, and its preoccupation with the perverse, our society bears an alarming resemblance to the Yuga. What springs to mind too is the nihilism and amorality of the Weimar Republic, which was a logical prelude to totalitarian terror. Most of the Council's "grand old men" are aware of the dangers of backlash, but in this volume at any rate they show little inclination to go back to first principles or to emphasise responsibilities alongside and (dare I say it?), sometimes at the expense of, rights. George Bull, who is not a politician and therefore more politically astute, is critical of the politically correct reformers of the United Kingdom, who take their cue from "Europe" to impose on us changes that degrade and deracinate:

The great publicly owned enterprise, the City of London, the long-established world-renowned manufacturing companies, the trade union movement, ... the army regiments, the Church of England, the House of Lords et al. have all been or are being ... wrecked or almost casually refashioned by reformers spread across the party system who often show scant awareness of the vital importance of strong and revered institutions in the fabric of a nation.

Scant awareness, perhaps. Or is it wilful destructiveness? True reformers build upon existing institutions, rather than tearing them apart. They respect traditional values, rather than trying to replace them with moral relativism. I might be wrong, but I have the impression that John Coleman is disappointed at the lack of questioning, by most contributors, of whether the Council of Europe's values are strong enough. He speaks of his generation's growing disillusionment, especially as the Cold War drew to an end:

It was not, perhaps, until the end of the Cold War that most of us became fully aware of the materialistic foundation of our Western society. So long as the Soviet threat remained it was possible to maintain the faµade of a righteous cause. Some of us asked the question: "Is our present way of life what we fought Hitler for?" Surely, there was a level at which our basic material necessities should have been satisfied and our minds and spirits should then, in theory at least, have been free to enjoy those other forms of wealth which according to the great philosopher Spinoza are the things which all can possess alike and where one man's wealth promotes his neighbours.

Coleman still sees the Council, warts and all, as the best way to achieve this type of Europe. With the corruption of Western liberalism by "permissiveness" and political correctness, I suspect that the best hope for moral leadership might come from Eastern Europe. There, the intellectual tradition is relatively unsullied, there is a powerful spirituality that was the bane of Communist bureaucrats, and there remains the memory of recent, disastrous forms of social engineering. The invocation by Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch of the Armenians, of the "moral and spiritual foundations" of Europe is a refreshing contrast to the secular slogans of Archbishop Carey, who renders much unto Caesar in his chapter but little unto anywhere else. Vaclav Havel, Czech President and elder statesman of the "Velvet Revolution", endured an atmosphere where deadening Stalinism was presented as inevitable progress:

I often had to listen to [the] "voice of reason" following Brezhnev's invasion of Czechoslovakia, after which such so-called "reasonable" people felt much revived because of they had been given a new argument for indifference to public affairs. ... I was far from the only one to disregard such wisdom and continue to do what I thought right. There were many of us in our country. We were not afraid of being considered fools. We went on to think about how to make our the world a better place, and we did not hide our ideas.

Havel also speaks of his colleague, Jiri Dienstbier, who was made to work as a stoker by the Communists. That this "reduction" to manual labour was intended to humiliate shows how little dogmatic Marxists truly regard the workers. Dienstbier maintained his dignity and went on writing and thinking:

"What's the point of a stoker writing utopian notions of the future when he can't exert the tiniest influence on this future and can only bring harassment on himself?" asked the friends of reason, shaking their heads uncomprehendingly. And then a strange thing happened. Time suddenly accelerated, and what would otherwise have taken a year suddenly happened in an hour ... the impossible suddenly became possible, and the dream became reality. The stoker's dream became the daily routine of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

As the Council of Europe expands from a caucus of Western European nations to absorb the former Communist bloc, let us hope that the West is "Easternised" for once, so that a new dark age of materialism and dissolution can be averted. Let us hope that the pseudo-liberalism of the West might yield to the values of Havel and Dienstbier. For the experience of such men has given them a vision of human rights closer to that of ordinary people. And knowing what it is to be without freedom, they will not confuse it with self-indulgence.

It is the Eastern contributions to this book that allow me to end with a cautious optimism. For as Europeans, and as Britons, Irishmen, Germans or Czechs, we face a moral choice between possible futures. One future is the Europe of rent-a-womb babies as a "right" and the collectivist censorship of Madame Onkelinx.

The other is, to quote Havel once again, "an amicable community of independent nations and democratic states", or the stoker's vision of a just society, where governments respect individuals enough to give them responsibilities as well as rights. I think it is possible that the stoker's vision could win. In his admirable introduction, Coleman quotes Russell (Bertrand, not Cosmo), writing of the early church of Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome:

while the state was feeble, incompetent, governed by unprincipled self-seekers, and totally without any policy beyond that of momentary expedients, the Church was vigorous, able, guided by men prepared to sacrifice everything personal in its interest, and with a policy so far-sighted that it brought victory for the next thousand years.

To defeat Madame Onkelinx and her ilk, Europe needs such visionaries. It needs clear thinkers, willing to question and challenge social trends, to conserve what is good in Western morality and thought. Will the Council of Europe at last provide moral leadership? I most sincerely hope so.


  1. 1.

    Aldous Huxley, Foreword to Brave New World (1948 edition). Quoted in Roland Huntford, The New Totalitarians (London: Allen Lane, 1971), p.'8. This book is a study of the darker side of Swedish social democracy, by the former Scandinavian correspondent of The Observer.

  2. 2.

    1948 Introduction, quoted in Huntford, op.cit., p.'305.

  3. 3.

    William Wordsworth, French Revolution, in Poems, with an introduction by Alice Meynell (London: Blackie and Son Limited, 1903), p. 276.

  4. 4.

    R.C. Zaehner, Hinduism.

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